“Yeah, and you throw me out like a piece of dog shit! While you’re sleeping around and your friends are fucking everything in sight.”
Luigi took a deep breath and counted to 10. Cody had been through a lot.
Before he’d got his temper under control, Cody said, his eyes angry, his tone challenging, “Well?”
“Firstly, I wasn’t sleeping with Keith and Jason when you and I … when I was going out with you.” Neither noticed the old-fashioned phrase, implying so much more than just a fuck or a fuck-buddy, implying in fact as it had been once in the 50s and 60s and 70s, the inevitable prelude to marriage and life-long commitment.
“Yeah, well.” Cody wouldn’t look at him.
“And … I was angry with you because you’d been deceiving me.”
“I … Lou … I had no choice … I couldn’t tell Phil. She would’ve dumped me. And I love her.”
“Why should I always have second best? Just because I’m gay? Why can’t I have someone to love?”
“I do love you. I did love you, Lou. I did!”
“Yes. But sometimes you wouldn’t answer your mobile. You wouldn’t be there for me. When I needed you. When I wanted to talk to you.”
Cody looked away. He didn’t answer.
“And what about Phillippa? You weren’t there for her either. You lied to her. And you lied to me.”
“You lie to your mates.”
“No I fucking don’t. We all know the score. Jace and Key and I fuck each other, sometimes together and sometimes just two of us.”
“That’s … wrong.”
“Why the fuck is it wrong?”
“You should stick to one.”
“Yeah. Like you did!”
“Being gay …. it’s …. wrong, Lou. I know that. You know that.”
“I fuckin’ don’t! You know what? Trying to make a gay person straight is like trying to make a short bloke grow an inch. It won’t happen. It’s impossible. Against nature.”
“But I’m not gay!”
“Yeah. So you said.”
They glared at each other angrily.
At last, Luigi sighed, “I know every man and his dog think gay is wrong and evil. I even thought that once. I hated myself. I wanted more than anything to be like the footy team. All manly and macho and straight. I fucking begged God to make me straight. And He never did.” He turned away and stared into the distance. “You know what? I think God doesn’t give a flying foo-foo valve about gay or straight. And half the fucking priests in the Church are gay. I’m me, Coads. I know I have faults. I know I’m effeminate. And over-obsessed with clothes. I know I’m not perfect. But, Coads, I’ve struggled hard to learn to like myself. To learn to love myself. To accept—to be happy with—what I am.”
There was a silence broken only by the distant clang of a tram and the muted rumble and growl of lorries on the main road.
“What are your faults?” Cody whispered. His lips trembled and his eyes glistened.
“I fall in love with straight-acting bisexual blokes who break my heart.” Luigi’s smile was wry.
“Oh, Lou, I’m so fucking sorry! I never meant to hurt you. Or Phillippa. Or anyone. Oh, God. I’m so sorry.”
Luigi reached over and wiped away Cody’s tears with his thumbs.
“It’s not easy, Coads. We’re gay or bi or … different. People don’t approve. They think we’re wrong or evil or perverted. And it makes it hard. And we … well, sometimes. Some of us. We have … we see … fidelity differently to everybody else, too. We … fuck each other. But it’s not like we’re being unfaithful to each other. We … if we … look, love, it’s wrong to deceive or lie or cheat … but Keith knows about Jason and Jason knows about Keith and, you know something? I reckon Tom knows about Keith and me and Jace.”
“Don’t you get jealous?”
“Yeah. Sometimes. But … what’s important is that we’re friends. We love each other, in our own way. We … care. I know it sounds weird to you. But … we’re a sort of family.”
“I wish …”
“I dunno.” Cody shook his head and looked away.
“We’ll try and work it out, Coads. We will. Because that’s what you do with people you love.”
“Do you love me?”
“I love you too, Lou. More than you can know.”
Keith and Jason helped Lucasta and Eleanor clear away the debris of their morning tea.
“We’ll do the washing up,” offered Jason.
“Nonsense. You young things must have a hundred things to do! I’ll do it.”
“No you won’t, Eleanor! My friends all descend upon you like gannets and eat you out of house and home! The least I can do is do the washing up!”
“it’s so nice to see young appetites,” Lucasta said, “all that energy and able to eat whatever you want and not put on a pound of fat all that zest for life.” She glanced worriedly at Jason, thinking that for a time his zest for life had disappeared. But he looked happy. Had he forgotten Brent? She didn’t think so. One didn’t forget the person one loved dear Harold had been dead these twenty years and had only met Jason at the christening if that counts as meeting you could hardly have small talk could you with a baby but at least Harold had seen his grandson which was nice though come to think of it Harold would not have been too happy about Brent though she wasn’t sure about whether it was because Brent was working class or a man perhaps not so much the man because after all he’d been to Eton and, well, there were all those pashes weren’t there with teachers and the other girls at her school and she was sure that boys at Eton had that too but then did boys have pashes Harold never said, so interesting.
Jason saw his grandmother looking at him with worried abstraction and knew she was thinking about him. He gave her a smile and took her arm in his.
“Out!” he ordered, firmly. “Key and I will wash up.”
“Well,” offered Eleanor. “Maybe we can all do it. Division of labour. Isn’t that how we are supposed to be efficient?”
“All right.” Jason smiled at Eleanor. He was very fond of her. He hoped she and his grandmother would become friends.
Lucasta saw the smile and resolved that she would try to be friends with Eleanor. She trusted Jason’s judgement. Only with Brent, at the end, had he been wrong—so wrong!—but his sense of the worth of other people had always been acute, even as a boy. She supposed that was why he didn’t get along with his mother she might be family but really the woman was odious such a wart and rather stupid too luckily her children had inherited their father’s brains.
When they’d finished and everything had been cleaned and dried and put away in its proper place to Eleanor’s satisfaction, Jason looked at his grandmother and said, “Grandam, how much energy do you have now? Maybe we can take you to see the sights? Or show you round the city.”
“A bit tired still, my dear, old you know.”
“Well, why not come and see where I work? We won’t go on a long trip and it’s not far. You too, Eleanor. You haven’t seen where Key and I work.” Jason didn’t want them to think he was ashamed of where he worked. He was proud of his work, in fact. He earned an honest living, he wasn’t relying on his dividends or the trust fund, he was being a real person. It felt wonderful. He was his own man for the first time in his life. Beholden to nobody, yet with friends, dear friends, who were also his lovers and his supporters. “Maybe we could have a coffee at a café and you could meet Esmé too?”
Lucasta could see Jason wanted to show off to her his new city, his new job, and though she was in truth still a little tired, she agreed.
“I’ll just go and spend a penny,” Lucasta said. “All that tea.”
“Will you take us in your car, Key?”
“Yeah. Course!” answered Key, rolling his eyes.
Jason took Keith’s elbow. “Come with me. I want to show you my camel.”
“Ya what?” exclaimed Keith, allowing himself to be propelled into Jason’s room.
“I’ve seen it already. Last night in fact.”
Jason pulled his bedroom door closed and kissed Keith. “Yeah. I know. But it seems a long time ago.”
“But … seriously … camel?”
“It’s from Wilfrid Thesiger’s book about the marsh Arabs of Iraq. Whenever a man fancied a young man and they were all sitting around on their straw mats having coffee or tea or goat stew, he would ask him to come outside with him so that they could “look at my amazing camel”. Then they’d come back all sweaty having had a bit of fun with each other. Though come to think of it, could camels survive in the marshes?”
Keith kissed Jason and slid his hand past the waistband of Jason’s jeans and fondled his package through his trunks. “Ya have a lovely camel. I’ve always liked it.”
Jason slipped his own hand down Keith’s pants and caressed his bum. “Me too. I mean I like your camel, too.” He kissed Keith again.
“We’d better stop. We don’t want to go out there all sweaty!”
In the end they didn’t go into the bar. Keith parked the car in a side street near the bar and they walked a little up and down Brunswick Street. Lucasta was thrilled by the street vibe, by the good humour of the pedestrians sauntering up and down, stopping to chat, or just sitting in the pavement cafés watching other people go past. It was a warm day, but the air had the look and feel of autumn, and the streets were strewn with the papery corpses of plane tree leaves. They did go into the café where Esmé worked. She wasn’t there when they arrived. When she came in, Jason kissed her. Keith stood up and pulled Esmé into a hug and kissed her too. Jason turned to the two old ladies.
“Grandam, this is our friend Esmé. Esmé, my grandmother Lucasta Ellesmere and my friend Eleanor Cumberledge.”
“So nice to meet you my dear how many friends Jason has made to be sure,” Lucasta said as she shook hands wondering at just how close Keith and Esmé were, and at how enthusiastically Jason had kissed her, and where Esmé fitted in.
Jason was wondering himself. He felt a sudden affection for Esmé, a connection he hadn’t felt before. She was likable. And cute. But he’d seen her more as Keith’s friend than his own. He thought of Brent, with a sudden pang. How quickly he’d forgotten him! Yet as this thought filled his heart, he realised that far from forgetting Brent, the ache of his absence was there all the time. He’d not been aware of it, but it lay under everything he thought and felt. He turned away to hide his tears. Did he really want to care again, to feel? The pain had been unbearable. Yet it seemed he didn’t have a choice. He did care, already. And as he looked round the table, he saw people he was deeply fond of and cared for. People he loved. His grandmother, wise, but giving the appearance of being dilly and scatter-brained. So kind and loving and tough! Eleanor, who’d taken him in off the street on his first day in Australia, who’d become his friend and his confidante, who had also suffered from her mistakes and misjudgements. Keith! Gruffly kind, tough, worldly, generous, insightful and … sexy. Undeniably hot.
And the thought struck him: what if Keith ended up with Esmé, and Luigi with Cody and he was left with nobody? Keith was bi-er than he was. Yeah, he liked sex with Jason and he was fond of him. But, wouldn’t biology triumph in the end? The seductive pleasures of fitting in, of being like everybody else. Not that Keith would ever be like everybody else. He was Keith. Unique. The thought of losing him was all at once unendurable.
He turned to look at Keith and saw that the other man’s eyes were fixed on him. But he couldn’t read their expression. And Keith was holding Esmé’s hand.
“It’s been … is it OK if I have a sleep?” Cody’s face was drawn, and his eyes haunted. He seemed to have aged twenty years since before all this had happened. Before Luigi had walked away from him, before the murderer had taken him. Before …
“Yeah, ‘course. Wouldja like to have a shower first?”
Luigi found him a towel and a pair of Bonds trunks Jason had left there once. His own undies would have been too tight for Cody. Cody wasn’t fat, though he was bigger than him, much more muscular, with big hands and feet, and taller, too. And he himself was so slim, like a skinny teenager. He wondered what it would be like to have been macho and muscled and on the footy team at school. Ah, well. No point wondering about what might have been and now never would be. What was his grandmother’s saying, in her strong Calabrian dialect? Something about as useless as asking goats to be wise. He was what he was, and it was what he had now which mattered.
When Cody came out of the shower, Luigi had made tea and toast and had a jar of peanut butter and his grandmother’s homemade plum jam on the table in the kitchen.
“I thought you always wore thongs, Lou?” asked Cody as he rearranged his package in the trunks before he sat down.
“I do, usually. But they would have been too small for you.”
“Yeah, prolly.” And Cody gave him the first smile he’d seen. “Skinny little bugger!”
“Hey! I’m Mr Muscles!”
“Yeah, right. So I suppose they belong to—who was it?—Jason? Keith?”
“Jason. He’s your size.” When Cody was silent, Luigi added, “They’re clean. I washed them.”
Cody felt how odd it was that he was in the home of the man he loved wearing the man’s other lover’s undies. He didn’t think he could cope with all the ramifications of that. Not yet, not now. But it twisted something inside him, painfully.
“I might have a zizz too,” said Luigi. “Don’t worry,” he added, “I’ll use the sofa.”
Cody felt the absurdity that he had driven Luigi out of his own bed. A few short weeks ago … Now they were strangers, almost. Polite to each other. Careful of each other’s feelings. Discreet.
But he couldn’t talk about his feelings.
“Don’t be silly,” he said. “I’Il sleep on the sofa, you can have the bed. It’s your house, after all.”
“Coads, love … you’ve been through … you ought to have the place where you can sleep properly. You need the sleep.”
“We could sleep together … just … I … oh God! It’s not that … I can’t. I can’t, Lou, love, I can’t have sex. Make love.”
Luigi pulled him into a hug. “I know. We won’t. Until you want to.” He kissed Cody’s forehead. “It’ll be OK.”
They climbed under the duvet like two strangers on a first date, timid and shy and awkward. Cody turned on his left side, and Luigi turned to face the same way and slipped his right arm over Cody’s waist, and together they drifted into sleep.
Cody thought he would sleep easily and deeply. Yet it was Luigi who slept, while he lay awake thinking about what had happened. What if he hadn’t gone to that pub when he had? What if he had picked on another victim? What if he’d never met Lou? What if? What if? But it had happened. He had been targeted. He had been violated and nearly killed. The whole nightmare had really happened. He thought back to his terror-fuelled run through the forest. Was it less than 24 hours ago? He didn’t think he would ever forget that panicked headlong race through the dark. Banging into trees, tripping over branches. Thank God he’d been fit. Running and gymming and swimming, and really, he’d done all that hard work to keep buff so he could pick up blokes. He felt the tears come to his eyes as he thought of Phillippa. Would he ever see her again? Did he still love her? He wanted to turn over, to thrash around, to kick and scream. But he couldn’t. Luigi’s arm was over him, and his body warm against his back. Luigi loved him. Didn’t he? Or did he? Maybe he only felt pity for him now. Now that he’d seen how weak and vulnerable he was. Can you love someone you pity? You feel sorry for? Maybe, thought Cody, maybe you can. But can you desire them? Don’t you need to look up to someone, to respect them to desire them? But then he thought about whores. Whores were desired, right, but not respected? But did he want to be Luigi’s bitch? He’d thought they were friends as well as lovers. That Luigi cared for and loved him as much as he did. But now he doubted.
And through it all ran the thread that if he hadn’t been out whoring, none of this would have happened. God was punishing him. Because he’d sinned.
The two old ladies decided to take the tram home. Lucasta was a little worried that she might not be able to climb up and down the steps, but Eleanor assured her that the new trams had low floors and that it was relatively easy to get on or off and that anyway, the stop where they would get off had a low platform in the street so they would only have to step down an inch or so.
“The Queen did it when she came to Melbourne,” said Eleanor. That clinched it for Lucasta. If Lilibet could do it, so could she!
Keith, Jason and Esmé saw them off from the stop outside the café, waiting with them until the tram arrived.
“I’ll be home later,” Jason told the two of them.
“We can celebrate with some champagne so nice when one meets and really quite healthful all things considered,” said Lucasta.
“I’ll see you seven-ish,” replied Jason.
“That was a polite request not to be too late,” he said to the other two as the tram headed off up the hill.
“Roight.” Keith winked at him. “That gives us a couple of hours til I start work and you have to be the dutiful grandson. What’ll we do?”
“I have to go back to the café,” Esmé pointed out. “I shouldn’t really have left. I’ll get a thousand words.”
“Ya’ve only been gone 5 minutes! What a drongo!” Keith was indignant.
“Well, you know what he’s like. And I need the job.”
“Yeah, I know.” He leaned forward and kissed her on the lips.
Jason kissed her too. She smelled nice, of coffee and scent and clean clothes.
“Well, what will we do?” asked Keith, leering at Jason.
“Ya have a dirty moind, Jace baby. Filthy. Oi could just a’ been suggestin’ a noice cup a’ tay. Whoile we rayd improvin’ books.”
“Naturally. That’s exactly what you had in mind, Keithie. Exactly.”
“Yeah. Too roight it was. Dunno what was goin’ through your septic tank of a brain!”
“The same as yours. Only one problem. We have to buy some condoms. I used the last one last night.”
“No easier said than done, me ol’ choina. I’ve got ta go to Coles anyway ta get some groceries.”
When they got to the checkout, there was a kid cashier, who didn’t look much older than about sixteen. He looked at the packet of condoms and the bottle of lube and then peered at the two of them. And blushed.
“Dja sey that?” asked Keith as they left the supermarket.
“Howd’ he work it out?”
“I dunno,” answered Jason, but what he thought to himself was ‘we look like a couple, we look like we’re together’, and then he thought of Keith’s kissing Esmé and how they also seemed to fit together and wondered just what he’d got himself into. Because it suddenly became clear to him that Keith and Esmé were also a couple.
After, Jason lay with his head on Keith’s chest.
“How straight are you, Key?”
“Haven’t we just shown that?”
“Well, before Brent, I had girlfriends. And it was good. But not as good as it was with him. With him—with you and Lou—it feels right. I mean, I s’pose I could have got married and stuff. And been faithful to my wife. But this feels … like it was meant to be.”
Keith tangled his fingers in Jason’s hair. “Yeah. I know what ya meyn. If hadn’t had to live on the streyt, then maybe … but, ya knaow, I can’t imagine a life without you or Lou. Or Tom.”
“So did you become gay? If you hadn’t had to … ”
“ …. whore? … ”
“… I wasn’t going to say that.”
“But it’s true. I’m not ashamed of it. There are much worse thengs.” Keith was silent for a few breaths. “Selfishness. Cruelty. Lies. But to get back to gayness and such, Oi dunno, to bey honest. Oi reckon … fuck, Jace, Oi dunno. Oi reckon that with the roight person at the roight time I would’ve found out anyway.”
“Oi think lots and lots a’ blaokes are … not gay … but capable of lovin’ another blaoke. But they never foind out. And when they feyl attracted to a blaoke they think it’s jus’ friendship. And it is. And it’s more that friendship too.”
“All right, that makes sense. But what about, you know, women?”
“Yeah. Well. I dunno. Whoi would they want me? An old whore? Gay as. Pozz. Not much to look at.”
Jason turned his head and took Keith’s nipple in his mouth and bit.
“Ow! Wha’s that for?”
“You’re handsome and sexy. Don’t say you’re not.”
“Ya’re makin’ me blush, ya dilly nong.”
Jason kissed the chest beneath him. “And Esmé’s keen on you. One woman at least fancies you.”
“Shey deserves better than me.”
“Oh, tosh! You’re handsome, presentable, intelligent, kind, sexy, hot, loving. And a good man.”
“Yeah. But shey wants kids. And a husband who isn’t rootin’ blaokes on the quiet.”
“She knows about us. And she doesn’t seem to care.”
Neither noticed that this implied that Jason knew that Keith and Esmé were sleeping together.
“But it’s different when ya’re married.”
“Who said anything about marriage?”
“Shey wants to. I know. But … me? Wey could never have sex without a cock-jacket. There’s no way I’d ever infect her. Even … you know … now … it worries me. Not jus’ with her. With you.”
“Yeah, at first, with you, I was terrified. But you know, Key, everything we do is risky. And we try to reduce risk. But something can always go wrong. Don’t worry about me. If the condom breaks, I’ll go and get that new treatment, you know, the day after pill.”
“Have you been tested recently?”
“You should.” Keith’s tone was serious.
“All right.” Jason knew Keith was right. But he felt a sudden marked reluctance to get tested.
“Why all these questions?”
Jason felt the rumble of Keith’s voice through his ribs. He moved his head to get more comfortable.
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “I’ve been thinking a lot. And what happened with Cody. About Brent. About … you know … where I’m going to be in ten years’ time. About … love …. and stuff.”
Keith rubbed Jason’s hair vigorously, and then pulled him into a tight embrace. “There’s naow aysy way, Jace, love. We’re … Oi … Oi live each day at a time. Oi knaow that it moight all be taken from me. Oi knaow that. So I troi to be happy with what Oi have. When Oi was whoring, I usedta imagine something happy. When a blaoke was fuckin’ me, and maybe hurtin’ me, Oi would just imagine Oi was on holiday somewhere beaut. Ya knaow, in my speydos on the beach, with someone I loved holdin’ my hand. Not about that this guy fuckin’ me was a pig, and that he was hurtin’ me, and would Oi have enough to buy some deycent drugs to make me forget for a whoile.”
“What happened to save you?”
“Tom.” Keith paused, ruminatively stroking Jason’s hair. “I love him. And I owe him. He saved moi loife. It’s that simple.”
“Does it bother him that you and I and Lou, you know?”
“Naow. He doesn’t moind. He’s glad that I’m happy. He did tell me not to give my heart to ya, because ya’ll prolly go back to England.”
“No. Never. Not without you and Lou. And I’ll never go back permanently. It was that whole English thing about class and money that lost me Brent. Yeah, and my own incredible stupidity.” He paused to think. “So … maybe on holiday. With you and Lou.” He was again silent for a moment or two. “Yeah. And Cody, too, if that all works out. We’ve got to look after Lou. I don’t trust that blighter. So, anyway, Key, my dear, you have me as long as you want me.”
Keith couldn’t speak past the lump in his throat. All he could do was squeeze Jason in his arms and kiss the tousled head resting with such trust and affection on his chest.
They dozed a little in the late afternoon autumn warmth.
At last, Keith lifted Jason’s head off his cheat and kissed him gently. “Oi’ve got to go’nd work.”
“You sure you’ll be OK? I could come in for a bit.”
“Naoh. Oi’ll be foin. It’ll be just loik the old days before ya turned up loik a bad fart on the doorstep lookin’ lost as.”
“What on earth do you mean?” asked Jason, grabbing Keith’s arms and staring at him in pretend indignation. “Me? Lost?”
“Don’t play the Mr Macho with me, straightboy! Yeah, you did. You looked so sad and heartsore and desperate.”
“So why did you bother being so nice to me?”
“Jeyz, Jace, because ya’re such a fucking stud. And this was so beaut,” and he clutched Jason’s package.
“Of course! Now why didn’t I think of that? Softie! Hey, do you want to come round afterwards. I’ll wait up for you.”
“Naow. Can’t. I’m meytin’ Esmé.”
Jason felt his heart twist. “All right,” he said, trying very hard not to show his pain.
Keith kissed him on his forehead. “Shey’s moi friend too, ya knaow. And ya’ve had me all las’ noight an’ all day today. Fair’s fair.”
“Yeah. I know! Have a good time with her.”
Keith hugged him but didn’t otherwise respond.
The tram ride back to Majorca Flats gave Jason time to think. Despite the love that Keith had shown him, he still didn’t feel secure. And Keith’s statements about living in the now somehow didn’t help. All right, so Keith loved him now. But what about next year? Ten years’ time? What then?
At Majorca Flats, Bolt’s enthusiastic welcome cheered him up. The hall was redolent with the smell of cooking. He found his grandmother and Eleanor in the kitchen busy preparing stuff for the “party”.
“Do I smell cheese straws?” he asked, trying to put his depressed mood to one side.
“You do!” Eleanor smiled.
“I know you like them,” said Lucasta, “and so delicious and savoury with champagne don’t you think whereas sweet stuff spoils the taste which would be a pity.”
She thought that Jason looked a little down-mouthed and wondered what was wrong. She’d expected him to come back from his love session with Keith in a good mood. But the young were always so intense, living life to the full but also feeling its down drafts more deeply too. Perhaps they had quarrelled. She wanted to ask whether his friends would be joining them at the party, but it seemed intrusive.